I’ve been a Panther all my life

Photo of Pierre Johnson and other members of the New Black Panther Party at a church pew

Pierre Johnson (second-from-right) and other members of the New Black Panther Party drove 28 hours to visit Kansas City, Missouri, where the last survivor of the domestic terror attack on “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma had escaped to in 1921. Photo courtesy of Pierre Johnson

Fighting for Black Power is part of my history. My dad was in the air force and when we moved to DC for his work when I was only seven years old, I started going to the Black Panther Party’s after-school program. I became a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) when I was old enough. And when I was about 38 and the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense (NBPP) came around, I joined that too. I’m currently the local field marshal for the NBPP. We work with everyone, anyone that’s willing to uplift the overworked and underpaid Lumpenproletariat class.

[Editor’s Note: The New Black Panther Party, founded in 1989, is currently designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for being a “virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law-enforcement officers.” Some former leaders of the Black Panther Party, which was dissolved in 1982, have denounced the group and its use of the Panther name. The author of this essay focuses on his personal goals and involvement in multiple Black Power organizations and is adamant that the local group he belongs to rejects hatred toward anyone and disavows NBPP national party leaders’ past comments against homosexual people and against Jewish people.]

Two college students founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 in Oakland, California. Their primary goal was to provide defense against police brutality and drive revolutionary change in the United States. Their platform included the rights of Black people to determine their own destiny; the right to full employment, decent housing, and education; and the right to gain knowledge of themselves through their own history. They also called for an end to police brutality, equal justice by their own peers, the exemption of Black people from all military service, immediate freedom for unjustly imprisoned Black people, and land and reparations. Can you dig it?

Illustration by Pierre Johnson

The Panthers quickly branched out to other major cities throughout the country in the 60s and 70s.In an effort to expand the membership and to counter negative press, the BPP worked hard at the community level, setting up breakfast programs for elementary school children, establishing health clinics and liberation schools, and collecting clothing for the poor. They served many people in need and attempted to create a positive image, but many Americans were troubled by the Panthers’ Marxist-Leninist politics and the support of the use of violence to protect Black people from unjustified attacks by police and others. 

The movement was personal, my oldest two brothers were BPP members. There were some really big names throughout the national party, too: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, Alan Davis, Angela Davis, Geronimo Pratt and Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur, to name a few. By 1969, the concept of Black Power engulfed a number of Black organizations and individuals who had otherwise felt hopelessness, despair, frustration, and outrage at the unwillingness of the United States to support its creed that all people are created equal.

“Black Power” as a phrase was first enunciated by Stokely Carmichael as he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Soon, the slogan could be heard at almost every major protest, but it meant different things to different people. So much so that Carmichael and Charles Hamilton published a book the year after the BPP was formed to delineate the meaning of the phrase.

They said it is a call for Black people in this country to unify, to recognize their heritage, and to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to begin to define their own goals, lead their own organizations, and support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions of society and its values. We all must still actively seek this revolutionary change.

I further interpret Black Power to be a call to pull your pants up and look, walk, talk, and think like men and women if you want to be respected. It is a call to wake up from the pathetically self-disastrous somnambulism that is annihilating the future of our youth; a call to start taking on the responsibilities of adulthood. It is a call to rise and shine, so that we can rise and shine! It is a call to stop the violence! It is a call to respect all of humanity, no matter what color. It is a call to run the illegal drug industry out of our schools and our communities — to run it out of business. It is a call to clean up our nation and save our planet. It is a call to start from the bottom and work our way up. Is it a call to make a way out of no way. Can you dig it?

There were and still are many people and organizations, such as myself, keeping the Black Power movement alive today. Whether America can deal with its own historical reality or not, and end the U.S. government’s race-based fascism against its own people is yet to be seen. Ask yourself, what kind of condition will this world be in when we get off when we get old if the responsibility to run this new world and its system is passed down to this new generation?

The local New Black Panther Party is looking for men and women to uplift our communities and provide positive responsible role models and guidance for our youth. We go out to feed people experiencing homelessness, especially during this pandemic — just like we did in the BPP in the 60s. And every Monday I host our “Freedom or Death” radio show to let people know about this struggle. Our community needs programs that provide social, political, spiritual, academic, cultural, and historical education. 

The only way people can be misled is if knowledge and information is withheld, concealed, changed, or absent. Many people get the wrong idea about revolution out of fear. Revolution should begin within each of us, first, to rehabilitate yourself against self-destruction. Revolution is rehabilitation against illiteracy, against racism, against deceit. It’s the rehabilitation against hate and self-hate, the rehabilitation against hypocrisy and jealousy. Revolution is the rehabilitation towards love, respect, and unity of all nations as equal human beings — no matter what creed or heritage. The fact of the matter remains that we are all children of God.

Pierre Johnson, a.k.a. “Abdullah Mutawakki Shakoor,” is an artist and vendor for Street Sense.

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